The Significance of 14th Century Plagues

The peasants and aristocrats could not save themselves from this disease, and a painful and horrible death was almost a certainty. The dying and dead people lay in the streets abandoned by their frightened relatives and friends. A widespread and devastating epidemic of the bubonic and pneumonic plague revenged Europe and Asia in 14th century, known as the Black Death. The disease got its name from the black spots it produced on the person’s body. The disease first appeared in Europe in 1347, brought by Sicily by Genoese ships returning from the Near East. Over the next few years, the plague quickly spread throughout Western Europe. The plague was aided by the lack of poor hygiene, soap, and populous conditions in towns. People, who lived during that period of time, had a weakened immune system because of a very low tolerance for the disease. “The long-term effects of the Black Death were devastating and far-reaching. Agriculture, Religion, economics and even social classes were affected. Contemporary accounts shed light on how Medieval Britain was irreversibly changed” (James, 2010). The first reason of this disease was an environment. There were no stretching industrial and urban complexes, the prominent characteristics of the last century, and only a few towns. The Black Death was a devastating disease of the 14th century that significantly hindered the development of Europe.


The economical balance of Eurasia was violently disrupted in the late thirteenth and early fourteenth. A result was the spread of plague from a permanent locus, The Gobi Desert, east into China, south into India, and west of the cross Asia to the Middle East and MeditationBasin. This marked the onset of the Black Death and the coming of the second plague pandemic. There are several theories that try to explain the Black Death in Europe and Asia. The first explanation was developed in part by William McNeill and it assigns a crucial role to the nomadic rulers of the Mongol Empire (McNeill, 1976, p. 89). Genghis Khan began it in the late twelfth century and it was still powerful in the fourteenth century. The Mongol empire was important because it served as a link between less mobile Eurasian societies in China, India, the Middle East and Europe. The empire was bounded together by highly mobile Mongol horsemen, who formed a network of the military and governmental communication spanning Asia from Russia to Persia and from the Punjab to Manchuria. By the late thirteen century, the Empire had reached the Young region in southern China. The young is today an inveterate focus of plague, and many scholars believe that it has been such since the 6 century A. D., when Y. pestis came from east African during the first epidemic. McNeill and others argue that, by the early fourteenth century, Mongol horsemen and supply trains had picked up the infected insect or rodent hosts of Y. pestis and carried them back to Mongol headquarters at Karakorum, in the GobiDesert. Local Gobi rodents were then infected and they and Mongol horsemen carried it throughout the far-flung Empire in the same fashion that they had brought plague into desert (McNeill, 1976, p. 121). The Gobi region was itself an inveterate focus of Y. pestis. In either circumstance, the domination of much of Eurasia by the Mongols was crucial to the spread of plague.

A second interpretation recognizes the importance of the Mongols but claims the environment, rather than human, factors were important in plague’s origin and spread. As the prevailing Eurasia wind patterns changed, Western Europe, dominated by Atlantic breezes became much wetter. The sirocco winds blew hot from the Sahara, dry air into the already hot and dry central parts of Asia. This gradual desiccation, which began in the mid-thirteenth century and continued into the early fourteenth century, caused Mongol and Turkic nomads to move their flocks, the most important part of their pastural economies, east and west in search of greener pastures. At the same time, central Asia wild rodents-marmots, susliks, tarbagons, ground squirrels also moved in search of water and food, infecting local rodent population with Y. pestis and thus extending the plague pandemic. The rodents and men of the steps and deserts were clearly the initial carriers of the plague. The nomadic tribesmen seemed to have a sense of the connection between plague and rodent intermediaries and developed a series of customs to prevent the spread of Y. pestis. The trapping of marmots, the principal host of the flea X. cheopis, was generally forbidden; they could be shot, however only at a safe distance. Animals that moved slowly were untouchable, and there were widespread taboos about using furs from certain types of rodents.

The news of the natural disaster in Asia began to filter back to the west from the travelers early in the 1330s a series of droughts and earthquakes from 1330 to 1333 and subsequent flooding in 1334 caused widespread famines, which were worsened by swarms of locusts that destroyed what remained of the crops. These adverse ecological blows continued into the 1340s and were joined by plague. An unspecific epidemic broke out in the province of Hopei in 1331 and killed 90 % of the population, but both the mortality and description of the disease cast doubt on whether it was the Black Death. Gottfried states that, “Whatever the precise dates and circumstances, by the mid-fourteenth, the Black Death had struck and, by 1339, after successful recycle of epidemics, the Chinese population had reduced to about 90 million” (Gottfried, 1983, p. 124).

Between 1330 and 1346, the plague probable infected the Western World in two ways. The first was strictly ecological. Dislodged central Asia rodents infected local animals, and then human populations were gradual, but it was very comprehensive process. The second was the work of men, the elaborate East-West trading system established in the twelfth and thirteenth century. There were only three principal arteries of the East-West trade. The first was an overland route across central Asia through northern China and to the trading entrepôts along the northern coast of the Black Sea. This route was traversed primarily by caravans, which were protected by the Mongol Peace, a guarantee enforced by the Mongol khans. The second route was initially by the sea and included the lucrative trade of spices and herbs from South Asian Countries. All the ships were sailing into the Persian Gulf through the Indian Ocean, and then all the goods were carted by the caravans to the Levantine coast through the Arabian Peninsula. The third path also was initiated by the sea and flew from South Asia into the Red Sea. There, they were taken overland to Gaza or the ports of the Nile Delta.

At the end of each path were Italian merchants, primarily Genoese in the Black Sea and Venetians and Pisans in The Mediterranean, who carried the goods to the by the ships to Italy, France, and Catalonia, where they were taken overland into Europe. In 1291, the intra-European routes of this system were facilitated when Genoese ships sailed for the first time through the Straits of Gibraltar, north into the Atlantic, through the England Channel and into the North Sea ports of the Netherlands. By the fourteenth century, the entire system was relatively quick and efficient. Y. pestis could be carried either by the rats and fleas abroad the trading ship or, in the case of the pneumonic plague, by the merchants themselves (Gottfried, 1983, p. 224). By the 1340s, the Eurasia commercial network was sufficiently fluid for an epidemic to pass through it before the disease carriers became victims of the situation.

It is a debate which of the three trading routes was the most important in the spread of the Black Death. It is likely that the overland route through central Asia was most crucial, but the other two also played an important role in plague’s spread. For ships on these sea-based routes brought infected Asia black rats, plague’s most prolific carriers, to the West. To most Westerners, Tartary and the Orient were remote areas inhabited by pagans and fields. Strange thing happened in such exotic places and there was no reason to think that similar disasters would strike the West. But in September 1345, the Black Death did come close to home. It attained the Crimea, through the northern coast of the Black Sea, where many Italian merchants had a lot of trading colonies.

Humans initially contrasted the disease from flea bites, and the fleas that carried the bacteria often lived in the fur of black rats. These rats liked to travel and would hitch rides on ships, which helps explain both how the plague first arrived in Europe, and how it spread so rapidly. Gottfried argues that, “The Black Death was transmitted to Western Europe from China along trade paths” (Gottfried, 1983, p. 154). It was carried to Italy on Genoese ships, unleashing the pandemic that engulfed nearly all the Europe and did not subside until 1351. When the Black Death reached the European cities, the people were already on the edge of recovery. Bites from bacteria-laden fleas caused the bubonic plague; however, the disease could also spread from human to human, a form of the disease known as the pneumonic plague. Poor hygiene in many European cities, towns, and rural villages also contributed to the spread of the plague. Many poor and middle-class families tended to live together in a single crowded house, and the whole family would even sleep together in just one bed. Such close quarters made it easier for one family member to contract the disease from another. At the time, medicine had no means to deal with the plague, and all the doctors could really do was slightly alleviate a victim’s suffering.

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The direct impact of the Black Death was fear, dislocation, and death. The population of Europe dropped from 60 million people to 35 or 40 million. Rates of mortality are difficult to determine, but probably a third of Europe’s population died during the four years the plague stalked the land. The plague hit cities the hardest. London lost about third of its population, and many Italian cities were hit hard as well. Florence lost nearly between one and half and two-thirds of its citizens. However, many of these cities had begun to suffer from overpopulation before the Black Death. The disease killed off many people, and it actually ended up contributing to a better distribution of both lands and goods. Many people of the working class had died that demand for labor rose significantly, as did the wages for labors.

The havoc of it wrought was uneven, however, Italy as a whole was hard-hit, yet the Milanese were spared almost completely. Norway lost half its population, while the people of Bohemia and Poland were hardly touchable. The Back Death was probably responsible for the stagnation of the Spanish population in the 14th century and must have contributed to the loss of Spain’s great power status. Since men and women of Middle Ages didn’t understand how disease spread, they manufactured explanations to justify themselves. Christians blamed the Black Death on the Jews. They created elaborate plots by which Jewish Europeans were destroying Christianity by poisoning wells and other water supplies. Companies to kill Jews took place in southern France, Spain, Poland, Austria, and Germany, Jewish populations were massacred, burned alive, and attached by dogs (James, 2010).

Traditionally, the entry of the Black Death into Europe has been assigned to the Genoese settlements at Caffa. A street brawl between the Christian merchants and local Muslim residents degenerated into a war and, after some initial skirmishes, The Muslim sought help from the local Tatar lord, a Kipchak khan named Janibeg, those who died of the plague, but the city did not approach its pre-plague population until the sixteenth century. Other places in the Nile Delta were devastated. Damietta, an important fishing port, was especially hard hit. Gardens and fruit trees were allowed to dry up and fishermen stayed in port for weeks on end. In other Delta villages, the death rate was so great that law courts were suspended and wills could not be probated. In Bilbais, for example, bodies were piled in mosques and shops, and roads were littered by the decaying cadavers. Some roads had so many bodies piled along their sides that bandits took to utilizing them to conduct ambuscades.

The Black Death moved from the Delta to the Nile, reaching Cairo by spring 1348. The mortality averaged at least 300 people a day in the city, at peak periods of infection of late spring and early autumn, the daily death count may have reached 7000 people. Everything was in chaos. There was a shortage of coffins, so the dead were borne on the wooden planks. The funeral processions wound through the city continuously and, by autumn 1348, there were no more shrouds available in the city. Preachers and gravediggers also were in short supply, leading to mass burials in large, open trenches. However, there were so many dead that mosques and shops were piled high with bodies in the Delta. The plague spread through the Middle East from Cairo. The town of Gaza was struck in spring 1348. Gaza was the major market town in an important agricultural region; the food markets were closed for two months as a result of the Black Death. Gaza served as the gateway for the plague into Palestine and Syria. In late 1348, the plague reached Antioch, a major commercial seaport with pre-plague population of about 40,000. It is possible that the Black Death was introduced not from Palestine, but also through trading vessels from Constantinople, Cyprus, or Alexandria. The mortality may have exceeded 50 % of the total population, and many residents were frightened that they fled to the lands north of the city, where the Black Death had not yet arrived (Gottfried, 1983, p. 231).Their fright, accompanied by the relentless movement of the infected rodents, facilitated the spread of the Black Death.

The plague spread from Egypt and Palestine throughout the Arabian Peninsula, eventually reaching Islam’s holiest city, Mecca. Interestingly, the presence of the Black Death in the scared city provoked an important theological debate. The Prophet Mohammed had claimed that deadly diseases would never reach his Holy City. When the plague did come, many Islamic scholars said it was because of the presence in Mecca of nonbelievers, a position that seemed to satisfy most of the Muslim faithful. The Black Death spread from Muslim Middle East to North Africa, both overland and by ship from Egypt. However, it is likely that the plague also came from the Christian parts of the Mediterranean basin (Cantor, 2001, p. 98). Tunisia and Libya had very close relations with Italian merchants from Pisa, Genoa, and Sicily. Under any circumstances, Tunis, probably North African’s largest town was stuck in spring 1348. By 1349, the entire Islamic world had been engulfed by the Black Death.


People and doctors did not know the cause of the disease at that time. No one in the 14th century knew what the plague was or how it was passed on. Many people believed that it was a punishment from God for human wickedness. People accused the Jews of poisoning the wells and spreading the Black Death living in France, Spain, and Germany. Doctors could not prevent a spreading of this disease and didn’t have any medicines for its treatment. European doctors visiting plague victims were protecting clothing, a mask, and a break containing strong-smelling herbs. The symptoms of the victims were horrible. The bodies of the sick people were covered with the big tumors and purple dots.

It is difficult to imagine the terror must have gripped medieval communities when the plague hit. Physicians could offer little help except to follow Galen’s advice, “Leave quickly, go far away, ad come back slowly”. The plague caused panic among the people and many of them tried desperately to save their lives. People fled from towns and cities into the countryside to avoid, but often only speeding in spreading it even further. Many people simply waited for death, other tried a variety of remedies. A lot of people believed that the disease spread through “bad air”, and they burned incense to try to cleanse the air around them. Doctors advised people to cover their doors and windows with heavy cloths to keep poisonous air out of their houses. A great number of people covered their faces with scent cloths whenever they went out. It was also believed that sound might drive the Black Death away (Cantor, 2001, p. 87). The communities rang church bells or even fired canons. Many European towns and cities took measures to try to control the spread of the disease. In 1348, Venice closed its waters to ships suspending of carrying the Black Death and enforced a period of quarantine before crews were allowed to land. Other Italian cities restricted people’s movements. Many places also established hospitals, called “pest houses”, where victims of plague were isolated from the rest of the community. It is estimated that by the end of the 14th century, the Black Death had wiped out between 20 or 30 million people, around one-third of entire population of Europe.

In conclusion, the Black Death Plague was not only one of the greatest disasters in the history of Europe and Asia, but it was also one of the most significant moments in the world history. The prosperity did eventually return in the years after the plague, the horrors of living through the time of the plague left many people feeling scared and pessimistic. The material effects of the plague disappeared fairly quickly, but its physiological effects lingered long afterwards.